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Dave and Jan's travels:
Cuba comparison

19th January
Cuba vs. Mexico? Communism vs. capitalism? Who's the winner? Below, we summarise our findings in five areas of critical importance. Read on...

[this is NOT the standard Cuba travelogue page, which is actually here]

Yes, folks, it's a boring old 2-2 draw. Sorry about that: I must be getting diplomatic in my dotage. It won't happen again.


Cuban flag Not a good topic for Fidel's team. The boys in berets are about as snotty and officious a bunch of petty minded pompous little tyrants as I can remember encountering in a long time. An example:

We went out for a stroll around Havana. We met a pleasant enough Cuban, keen to practice his English, so we struck a deal of thirty minutes English for him to practice alternated with thirty minutes of Spanish for our benefit, plus we get the benefit of his tour of the city, and he gets a cup or two of coffee. A couple of hours later, a policeman crooks a finger at our man Mario. The colour drains from Mario's face, as he rushes across in submissive posture. Policeman (apparently aged about 21) stands in aggressive macho man posture, takes Mario's papers, talks importantly to his walkie talkie for a while, then beckons David across to have another conference on the other side of the path. Where did you meet him? How long have you known him? What are you doing? We can't be responsible if he mugs you. (Presumably this would be in front of the other five hundred people in this street). And so on ad nauseum. Eventually another Cuban daring to talk to a foreigner is stopped, this one has not only committed that sin but compounded it with the highly suspicious manoeuvre of being unemployed. After about 45 minutes we are free to go, the other guy is off to the station where apparently he will get three more hours of nonsense and then, probably, be freed also.

What's particularly irritating about all this is the complete lack of redress. These little hitlers live at the bottom of a huge hierarchy, every layer of which believes itself to be right all the time. It starts from a small group of idealistic revolutionaries that went through a war together and understandably defend each other, right or wrong. The same lack of accountability soon spreads throughout a gigantic bureaucracy, which unfortunately always seem to turn out to be comprised for the large part of gits.

I should add that Mario's case was a far from isolated example: all over Manila are policemen and soldiers stopping people for the sheer hell of exercising their power. The populace have no choice - Mario (who likes living in Cuba and being Cuban) seemed basically embarrassed about the whole thing on behalf of his country.

Mexican flag Mexican police have very smart uniforms with a fair amount of gold braid. However, this doesn't seem to register with most people. This is seen most vividly on the roads, where the normal Mexican driving rules (i.e. cut up or be cut up, devil take the hindmost) are applied to police cars in exactly the same measure as other cars. Most policemen seem to be smiley people trying their best to be helpful whilst getting their job done. One example was a group of traffic cops deputed to search cars for fruit as part of a "keep the bugs out of this fruit growing area" operation. A friendly chat, an apologetic but firm look around the boot, and eventually a gift of two previously confiscated oranges to "eat now". Another example was a whistle blowing traffic cop stopping central city traffic so an old guy with a heavy load could cross the road in peace. Nice people. Apart from one guy in Guadalajara who made us bribe him, but we'll treat him as an isolated renegade.

Visible wealth

Cuban flag Somewhat strangely, the bastion of socialist purity wins out by several lengths in the fashionable dress stakes. Plenty of designer labels, stylish shirts and chunky jewelry for the boys, and skin tight pedal pushers and skimpy tops for the girls. No sign of traditional dress, and no sign of that other Mexican tradition of wearing clothes until they break, not until they stop being of the moment. And they even wear sunglasses and shorts, two badges of the tourist in Mexico. Talking of which, it does seem to be very hard to tell local from tourist in Cuba, whereas in Mexico the difference is clear.

Some shops seems dusty and understocked. Book stores are a prime and especially sad example, where several ancient texts have clearly occupied their shelf space for a decade or more, and are going to be there for a long time to come. Still, there's no food shortages here.

Cuban streets are clean and safe. The former is definitely a good thing: I think the latter may be partly due to the overpolicing mentioned described above, but it's also due to a different sense of priorities. These are also what drives Cuba's high quality public health and high rate of literacy, both things you can't see and which matter a lot.

Overall, I'd say that Cuba is at least economically level. This is hugely impressive when you factor in the way that Cuba's export market and only source of oil vanished overnight as the wall came down. To have rebuilt as far as they have in eight years says a lot: there was one foreign joint venture started in 1991, and 300+ in 1998. Apropos of which, the locals are very keen on the Euro: it'll be a lot easier when two thirds of their foreign investment comes in one rather than twelve countries.

A win to the socialists.

Mexican flag Mexico may not be a fashion victim's dream, but it does have a lot more traffic, and a lot more of that traffic is less than thirty years old. Sure, wing tailed corvettes are cool, but not when you're driving one because that was the last time you could afford to buy a car.

Plus, Mexican shops are mostly full. Alright, a number of the goods may be slightly iffy, but there's plenty of them and most of the essentials of life are available and cheap.

In general, Mexico is visibly brimming with the competition that magazines like the Economist tell us is required for economic success. And yet so much of it seems to generate short-termist actions that leave the battered infrastructure reeling, and which make no provision for a grander future. They really need some of the Victorian capitalist from Britain who built the railways: each individual railway was doomed to generate inadequate returns, but the benefit to the nation of the overall network was incalculable.

Treatment of tourists

Cuban flag Now, we have to make some allowances here as first, we only visited the capital city, and second, we did buy an all-in package which tends to expose one to the most tired end of the local tourist trade. So let's start by getting it off our chests: The Capri hotel in Havana is a DUMP. The food is horrible and that's the best bit. The bathroom looks like it's about to fall apart. The corridor is festooned with damp stains. The rooftop pool smells of sewage. And the people aren't very into service. If the package your tourist has paid for involves an airport transfer that hasn't arrived, you probably shouldn't make them pay for the telephone call to resolve the problem. Especially when the call actually costs about 3% of the price of the room.

The other huge problem in Havana is what a Californian we met described as the "money tree" effect. Hundreds of Havanans seem to see only the wallet when a tourist walks by. Yes, you get a certain amount of begging and attempted overcharging in Mexico too, but you don't get quite such blatant panhandling. For example, museum attendants routinely walk up and say things like "give me soap and shampoo and candy for my kids". All things that are cheaply available in nearby shops. In mitigation, we should repeat Mr Californian's other comment, which was that the problem is far worse in Havana than in the rest of the country.

Part of the problem is that authority has the same attitude. Tourist information offices know only about expensive packaged tours. Want to know when the trains goes to town xyz? Want a map of the town? Want to know what might be nice to see? Forget it. Although, naturally there's always the individuals shining through, in this case one anonymous woman working in a tourist office who took time and trouble to share her knowledge of and enthusiasm for her own home town.

On the plus side, we did meet a lot of nice people, including that woman, Mario who we talked to for hours, and a lovely lighthouse keeper who liked lighthouse and liked people too.

Mexican flag Basically, the officials who deal with tourists in Mexico do their best. Lots of them seem to be young people who quite like the challenge of communicating, and are proud of their own town, and want you to enjoy it too. Not all the tourist offices are terribly well organised or stocked with information, but they do all contain people that want to hand out organisation rather than take in money. And the government doesn't go too far out of their way in search of currency. OK, they do charge foreigners more than locals for many major sites, but that's certainly not a strange idea to the Cuban government, and I for one don't begrudge it at all. I'm particularly fond of taxes on the wielders of video cameras.

There's not a great deal of begging in Mexico. There are, sadly, quite a lot of children on the streets, something that Cuba has less of, although is far from free of. Begging by people doing their jobs is unheard of. Several people are looking for tips, but they do at least provide the best whatever it is (e.g. guide to a monument) before they start asking for cash.

Treatment of tourists: score one for Mexico.

Fun and frolics

Cuban flag Politically, this might be a socialist country, but when it's time to let your hair down, this is the Caribbean. Every other restaurant has got a salsa band going at all hours of the day, and the locals are out of their seats and dancing at the drop of a hat. No-one seems to need to drink, get indoors, go out on the town: just get up from your lunchtime coffee and dance! The music is very enticing, and everyone has a good time.

Come the evening, there are a lot of bars, and most are pretty well populated. Beer and various rum cocktails are the favourites. We tried "Montejos": white rum, mint, sugar and lime, and very nice too. And it is nice to see people who know when to stop.

Food, on the other hand, is more variable. We went to one very expensive and dire restaurant, one very cheap and nice although there's no reason to believe the waiter has two expressions, and a third with farcical service and a largely fictitious menu. We won't score Havana too badly for this, though, as it suffered from us having no guidebook and thus no quick way to separate the wheat from the chaff. Most other foreigners with more time seem to have had better experiences.

Mexican flag Mexicans know how to have a good time musically. There's a lot of music - by European and US standards a huge amount of music - but perhaps not quite as much and not quite as every day as Cuba. But this is splitting hairs, as both countries have music in all the streets.

One problem for the Mexicans seems to be drinking. Mexican men seem to be either sober or completely useless falling over drunk. During the time spent getting from one state to the other they're usually hidden from view in a Cantina, a place with very loud music and usually papered over windows and thick doors. That's a blessing, as one has to assume the process isn't pretty. But moderate drinking doesn't seem to be on the agenda at all.

On the other hand, moderately priced quality food is widely available. Part of this may be because the restaurants are aimed at locals, rather than the largely tourist trade that we found in Havana. Allegedly things improve outside the capital.

Overall, this one's close, but we'll give it to the land of the rum cocktail. One point to Cuba.